This is the extended version of Columnist’s essay in Perspectives: Skin Colour in Brunei.

On perspectives of skin colour by Columnist

When Faiq invited me to write a post on perspectives of skin colour in Brunei, my immediate thoughts were on binary oppositions. What binary opposites allow us to do is to put two terms in juxtaposition as an approach to understand concepts: I know what dark or darkness is because I know what light is. Dark is the absence of light. There is a tendency for this opposition to be hierarchical – light symbolising good and dark symbolising evil or the absence of good. This way of thinking is problematic because when we start thinking in terms of strict structures which produce hierarchy, we allow for one to dominate the other.

Throughout history this can be reflected particularly with the dichotomies of male and female where the former is considered the superior gender, consequently societies have been organised based on this hierarchy. Another significant example would be the perceived polarity between West and East where we can find a history of perpetual comparison and more significantly colonisation. Productive movements were born out of the deconstruction of this way of thinking as they seek to overcome this sometimes violent and oppressive hierarchy.

Responses have opened up a spectrum of possibilities which we owe to today such as feminism, post-colonialism, and of course our approach to equality and human rights. Discussions on identity are still panning out as we see the singular turn plural and what is perceived as a whole become fragments. Breaking out of binary opposites enables us to let the world reveal its multiplicity from which we can understand more about everything.

Upon reflecting this further, my thoughts departed from binary oppositions – the usefulness and productive contemplation this might have allowed is at best descriptive. While thinking on these terms is useful to understand the oppositions in the first place, how they have formed historically and over time, it does not take us far enough to the question of how these perceptions perpetuate themselves and continue today. If questions on our perception of skin colour in Brunei can lead us to issues such as our past in the era of colonisation, our norms on class and statuses, and we know the effects it has on our perception, how then do we break away from this way of thinking?

Perhaps it is the question of values – what values do we ascribe to ourselves or what values we should live by. At the 4:38 mark in Tasya’s interview, you see her gesture with her hands and say two very crucial terms ‘whole’ and ‘perfect ideal’. It is perhaps part of our human condition to be anxious about seeing ourselves on a journey to becoming whole based on a perfect ideal. We always want to feel complete or completed by something as though presently we are continuously searching. This value of wholeness is prevalent in modern ways of thinking about the self.

There is a tendency to think in terms of becoming a better person through a certain kind of telos and objectivity: there is an end-goal which awaits us. Complicit in this way of thinking is feeling of security with the quantifiable – weight control is measured in calories, intellect can be measured in an array of terminology based on numbers, there is even a measure of our wellbeing in terms of gross national happiness. The count keeps us in check, the numbers anaesthetises our anxiety, and therefore there is an illusion of eliminating uncertainty – an impression of having our entire lives under our complete control.

Perhaps to assume better control, we then consume anecdotes of “self-improvement” by the media intoxicated by the idea of perfection, we enrol in educational institutions obsessed with objectivity and goals of “self-development”, an inclination to “better” ourselves turning our lives into a catharsis of what we don’t want to be, based on our fixation with numbers. This mindless fascination about becoming whole and that at some point there is a phase of completion makes us binge on a placebo of what is meaningful – this is the overdose of the quantifiable self. This way of thinking is deeply rooted in our ways of being. Perhaps there is an inheritance from Abrahamic religious ideology where life on earth is not only temporary but also a pathway to redemption to an afterlife – a sense of journeying to the perfect place. Or there is also line traced back to Plato’s ideas where there exists perfection and ideal forms in the metaphysical world which life on earth are mere imperfect imitations of.

This way of thinking, this perpetual dissatisfaction based on the journey to something other worldly blinds us from difference and the aforementioned multiplicity of the here and now. Acknowledging multiplicity can often involve the recognition of the tacit, latent and inarticulable. What is beauty? There is no single answer, yet it is neither relativistic nor meaningless. Thinking about beauty smashes the confines of binary opposites, it intensifies our anxiety over the inexpressible or immeasurable, and beauty itself does not lie on a linear progression on the way to something. Perhaps our perceptions on skin colour in Brunei is a reflection on how we are caught in the grip of two things: our ways of thinking in terms of opposites which is then perpetuated by our obsession of the complete ideal.

Categories: Culture

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